"You can't stress enough how much every game counts, especially when you get to tournament time," said Bjorklund, who wore a red coat to combat the chilly temperatures in the hotel conference room in Birmingham. "But there is no looking back. We've got to take it one game at a time and just know that every game is important."
The junior sharpshooter was answering questions at her second consecutive Media Day – a nod to how young Tennessee still is – and outlined for various media outlets how the Lady Vols used the off-season to get better.
Bjorklund doesn't feel like a youngster at this point. Her collegiate basketball career is halfway over, and she is now being asked to lead a team full of sophomores and freshmen.
"It's crazy how time flies by," Bjorklund said. "You go from being a freshman to the leader in a year or two. I think when my sister graduated this past year (Jami Bjorklund Schaefer played at Gonzaga) I was just like, ‘What? I'm next! It's crazy. It is just flying by, but it's been exciting."
Bjorklund went from being a key piece of the 2008 national title team to bowing out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as a sophomore.
Her public personality is rather mild-mannered – she is not the type to be confrontational – but after the loss last March to Ball State the guard told the media assembled in the locker room that any player that didn't want to work hard in the off-season needed to leave the program.
Every player re-upped for another season, and the team subsequently was put through some grueling workout and conditioning sessions by Pat Summitt and Heather Mason. Summitt only got two hours of court time per week with her team for three weeks, so those workouts were short by NCAA rules, though having to face Summitt after the worst loss in program history – the Lady Vols had made at least the Sweet 16 for 27 consecutive years – might have been punishment enough.
But Mason had six hours per week with the team, and she ran them up and down ramps at Neyland Stadium and used the indoor football complex to devise a series of conditioning tests intended to push the athletes to their breaking point and force them to fight through physical and mental fatigue. They did wheelbarrow exercises – one player walking on her hands, the other holding up her legs – for 120 yards. They flipped oversized truck tires, pulled blocking sleds loaded with weights, pushed grocery carts outfitted without wheels and with additional weight and engaged in one-on-one bouts of tug-a-rope just to see who was tougher.
"That was ‘Iron Will,' " Bjorklund said. "If you survived that … that brought our team together. We had a whole different attitude."
Bjorklund said it was the best thing that could have happened to the team heading into the off-season.
"We just went to work," Bjorklund said. "Coach has made it clear if you are not serious about getting consistent, if you are not serious about improving your game and investing in this program every single day then you might as well not be here. I just sense in our team that we have a whole different attitude."
Hearing demands from the head coach is one thing. Having a player demand accountability usually resonates deeper with a team. Bjorklund spoke from the heart after the Ball State loss in Bowling Green, Ky.
"They never understood what it takes," Bjorklund said. "I think my experience with the seniors my freshman year they taught me, and I need to pass that along and really make it clear, ‘This is what it's going to take.'
"I think this year I need to step up a lot more than I did last year in that leadership role and take that on and especially Syd and Vick and Kelley, too," Bjorklund added, referring to fellow juniors Sydney Smallbone and Vicki Baugh and redshirt sophomore Kelley Cain.
"I try to lead by example, and Coach has put it on me to be a verbal leader, step it up in that area," Bjorklund said. "I don't have sudden outbursts. I always try to encourage my team as much as possible and have that positive reinforcement, but when I do say something they know I mean it because I don't yell at them, so to speak, in that negative sense, so when I do, I think they really key in and listen to me and respect that."
Bjorklund could always be counted on to lead by example. She worked on her game after her freshman season and got back in the gym this past summer.
Bjorklund's evaluation of her offensive game with the coaching staff was that she needed to become a more consistent scorer in her third year.
"Coach said, ‘Yeah, you're going to have an off game, but you need to be putting up the shots, you need to be creating for your teammates, be that threat every game,' " Bjorklund said.
She also needed to not just rely on outside shooting and diversify how she tallied points.
"I am going to continue to work on being more of a scoring threat, really being able to create and be a scorer, whether it's moving without the ball, setting and using screens," Bjorklund said. "I think towards the end of the year I started to understand that I needed to do that more.
"All summer I really worked on coming off screens, creating my own shot off the dribble and just having that scorer's mentality. I think it's going to open a lot of things up for my teammates, for Kelley inside and then having Strick (Shekinna Stricklen) and Bree (Briana Bass) being able to do the same thing and taking pressure off me."
Bjorklund worked on coming off screens during her practice sessions on her own over the summer.
"I put a chair out there like a little screen, and I worked on changing speeds," Bjorklund said. "I got someone to pass me the ball and I worked on popping, curling, flaring (screens)."
Bjorklund also has continued to have consultations with Dr. Joe Whitney, the director of mental training for the Lady Vols. She started sessions with him a year ago and decided to continue them. It includes visualization techniques.
"It's amazing how mental the game becomes once you get to a certain skill level – just having the mentality of ‘I'm a scorer, I've got to get my feet set.' Just working on that mental side of it," Bjorklund said. "It really gets me focused in on what I need to be focused in on."
Bjorklund knew there were no shortcuts to getting better – she developed her work ethic in high school in Spokane Valley, Wash. – and she thinks the team as a whole realizes it now.
"I think we learned that last year," Bjorklund said. "You don't just come to Tennessee and win. You've got to work. It takes a lot of work, a lot of investment, whether it's the scouting report to getting in the gym on your own to putting your all-out effort every single day in practice. I think our team is starting to realize that's what it takes."
ORDER OF FINISH: The general consensus at Media Day was that the conference title was an open race this season, but several programs took exception to the media's rankings of the teams.
"I think they've got to be favored to win the league," said Auburn Coach Nell Fortner, whose Tigers won the regular season last year and fell to Vanderbilt in the conference tournament. "That is just my opinion. I think they're going to be good this year, especially having Marneshia Richard back. No telling how good they would have been last year if they would have had her. They are very, very good."
Fortner smiled and shook her head when asked if she agreed with the placement of Auburn at No. 8 in the league.
"That poll to me is a very hard one to predict," said Fortner, who agreed that the media tends to focus on attrition while the coaches evaluate who is returning and the newcomers. "It will be very interesting to see what the coaches came out with and what the coaches think of the league."
The coaches have already submitted their votes, and the SEC will release the results next week.
Fortner said she had not shown the poll to her players, but she knew they would see it on their own.
"I didn't even tell them because it really doesn't matter to me," Fortner said. "Last year we were picked third, and I knew we had a great chance of winning it. I thought we should have been picked first. They'll find it somewhere and they'll probably put it up. They find a way to use that stuff, there's no question, and I use it when I need to use it, but it's way too early right now."
Junior guard Alli Smalley, the lone returning starter for Auburn, was aware of the predicted order of finish.
"I actually did see that," Smalley said. "I think it kind of encourages and challenges us more than anything else. We haven't earned anything yet. We've got to prove ourselves."
Kentucky's players saw the media prediction of No. 11 for the Wildcats and reacted as if insulted. Post player Victoria Dunlap said she was shocked, as Kentucky returns key players and added a strong freshman class plus North Carolina transfer Rebecca Gray, a former Miss Kentucky Basketball in high school.
Junior guard Carly Morrow, who is from Chattanooga, Tenn., printed large white sheets of paper with the numeral "11" on them and placed them in players' lockers for motivation.
Richard said the Lady Bulldogs have already discussed Mississippi State being picked fifth.
"It's a challenge for us to prove we're better than fifth," Richard said.
Pat Summitt's remarks earlier in the week that she expected Tennessee to be ranked fourth in the league brought howls of laughter.
"She's not sandbagging a little; she's sandbagging a lot," LSU Coach Van Chancellor said.
Summitt laughed when told of their responses and said both Chancellor and Landers have downplayed their teams over the years.
Summitt is clearly happier with her team's response to the debacle of last year's 11-loss season, but she still wants to see it on the court before she's convinced.
"I feel good about what I have seen from them in practice, which means they learned their lesson last season," Summitt said. "Last year we did not have the defensive stoppers we needed, and I created that issue by recruiting dominant offensive players. We have learned from last season's mistakes that we need to be more unified and put forth a greater effort on the defensive end of the floor."
Angie Bjorklund thinks a rank of No. 2 is surprising, "if you're just going from last year," when the Lady Vols went 9-5 in SEC play, tied for fourth and were the No. 5 seed in the SEC tourney. But Bjorklund thought media voters perhaps realized that Tennessee would be inspired to commit and bounce back.
"People realize we went to work this summer, and we're going to be a different team," Bjorklund said. "The SEC is one of the toughest leagues year in and year out, and I think it is pretty wide open. Mississippi State, everyone is back. That competition is spread out. You don't have the one or two dominant teams any more. I think it is so wide open.
"Every time we play Mississippi State, get those boxing gloves on, get ready to fight because they are really a competitive, tough team."
It should be a treat for fans across the league – Chancellor predicted the winner could end up with as many as three losses – as teams play 16 SEC games and battle for those coveted bye spots in the conference tourney.
"It going to be competitive," Bjorklund said. "I love that. As a player you love that."
It's more nerve-wracking for the coaches.
"Coaches don't want that," Chancellor said. "I wish I had the dominant team."
LSU was picked to win the conference – preseason SEC Player of the Year Allison Hightower said the nod surprised her – but the league coaches don't see a clear frontrunner, at least not in October.
"You cannot have a letup," Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said. "Anybody in our league can win."
NEWS AND NOTES FROM SEC MEDIA DAY:
Vanderbilt's prized freshman recruit, Stephanie Holzer, a 6'4 center from Cardinal O'Hara High School in Newton Square, Pa., is expected to miss three to four months after having to undergo ankle surgery. That is a significant blow because Holzer was penciled in at center to provide a true post presence for the Commodores. "We thought the cavalry was coming," Vandy Coach Melanie Balcomb said. … Mississippi State Coach Sharon Fanning-Otis is using her married name this season. She met widower Larry Otis, the mayor of Tupelo, Miss., when the city held a special day for Tan White, a standout player for the Lady Bulldogs. Otis and Fanning dated soon thereafter, he later retired from politics, and they got married just before Thanksgiving a year ago. "Give Tan White an assist," Fanning-Otis said. … LSU Coach Van Chancellor said he thought his last coaching position would have been with the now-defunct Houston Comets of the WNBA. Chancellor did some broadcast work after retirement but then discovered that he didn't hunt or fish, didn't want to mow the grass, didn't care about tinkering in the garage and he could only play so many rounds of golf. When LSU was looking for a new coach and came calling, Chancellor turned them down. But he happened to later be assigned to a game involving LSU and afterwards Sylvia Fowles put her arm around him and said, "It would be nice if you would be my coach." Chancellor said he looked up and up at the 6'6 center and thought, "That's not such a bad deal." His wife saw the exchange and told her husband, "I guess we'll be moving to Baton Rouge." Chancellor said he is content to end his coaching career at LSU, but he doesn't know when that will be. "This will be the last job I ever have," Chancellor said.